Year after Irene, celebration and mourning in Vt.
RANDOLPH, Vt. (AP) — For some state residents, it’s block parties and parades. For others, a moment of silence. For still others, just another day of cleaning up the mess.
But one of the most unifying events was probably the sound of church and town hall bells reverberating simultaneously through the mountain valleys that Hurricane Irene’s floodwaters shredded a year ago.
Gov. Peter Shumlin called for the bell-ringing commemoration as residents reflected Tuesday on how far the state has come since the remnants of Irene unleashed the worst flooding in recent memory, killing six people, wiping out hundreds of homes and businesses and cutting off towns with miles of wiped-out roads and dozens of destroyed bridges.
At the Bethany United Church on Randolph’s Main Street the church bell rang at 7 p.m., while across the street at Chandler Music Hall hundreds of people gathered to commemorate Tropical Storm Irene, celebrate the recovery work that’s been done and recommit themselves to the work that remains to do.
Inside the hall, Shumlin, the state’s congressional delegation and other dignitaries gathered to thank the thousands of volunteers who responded to the storm.
Many residents are still hurting, Shumlin said. Some are still waiting for the Federal Emergency Management Agency “to tell them something they can believe,” he said.
The landlocked state suffered the worst damage along Irene’s trail of destruction, which left more than 65 people dead from the Caribbean to Canada. Cars tumbling like toys in roiling waters and covered bridges crumbling against muddy waves remain among the most indelible images of the storm.
Shumlin spent Tuesday on the last leg of a four-day tour of 22 Vermont communities hit hard by the storm. In Waitsfield, he joined townspeople for an impromptu midday celebration of the remarkable resurgence that has occurred since floodwaters from the Mad River severely damaged roads and buildings in the historic village.
Outside a new restaurant opening this week where one was flooded out by Irene, Shumlin praised all the work done but said some residents still need their neighbors’ help recovering from the storm.
“Reach out to the people you know still are hurting, knock on their door and say, ‘I am here to help,’” the governor said.
The fact that people are still hurting is obvious at businesses such as the White River Valley Campground in Stockbridge, where owners Rebecca and Drew Smith say they’re still overwhelmed by all the work needed to get the place back open.
“We need contractors, we need electricians, we need plumbers,” Rebecca Smith said.
But the couple said they have no means to pay for all that’s needed. They’ve been out of business since the storm and have missed their mortgage payments the past two months.
It’s easy to see by walking around the campsites by the placid White River, and through the rustic recreation hall, why the campground drew some families to come back every year for decades.
But now the grounds are covered in silt, the root balls of upended birches and junk — some of it was the Smiths’; the rest was deposited on their property when the river turned to a raging torrent.
Janet Lumbra, a 37-year-old single mother from East Granville, said she planned to observe the anniversary by continuing to work on fixing up her flood-gutted home. She and her 16-year-old son, Riley, lived in a camper across the road for months after the storm. But winter set in, and it got too expensive — $255 a week — to run the generator that powered the camper’s heater, so they moved in with Lumbra’s sister. They went back to the camper in the spring.
“I can’t cry anymore about this. Now you got to be a big girl and pull strings and try to get (things) done. That’s what I’ve been doing, contacting everybody and trying to get the ball rolling,” Lumbra said.
While some still struggle, others are celebrating the progress made — even in places where there’s much more to do.
In Newfane, in southern Vermont, where the Rock River wrought extensive damage, residents held a celebratory parade and barbecue Sunday. The parade started at the rubble pile on the Dover Road, where a house had stood before Irene.
Gloria Cristelli, the Newfane town clerk, a town board member and president of the Southeastern Vermont Watershed Alliance, marched with a toy singing fish she had bought at a flea market that morning.
“Yes we’ve still got work to do … but we’ve come a long way in a year, and we did want to celebrate that,” she said.
Some observances contained a somber element. Asah Rowles, board chairwoman of Mad River Flood Recovery, said people in her area were planning a moment of silence Tuesday evening after 30 seconds of town hall and church bells ringing around the state at 7 p.m., as called for by Shumlin.
Immediately following the bell-ringing, a focal point for the anniversary was to be the Chandler Music Hall in Randolph, with music and storm videos among the attractions.
At Deerfield Academy just over the border in Deerfield, Mass., 7 p.m. Tuesday also was the start time for a concert of specially written Irene-themed songs, being put on as a fundraiser for the Connecticut River Watershed Council.
Waterbury is featuring locally produced art about Irene and the recovery at a special exhibition that began Saturday and runs throughout September.
Observances continue into September, with a tour of Killington and other towns that suffered damage set for Sept. 3 and Waitsfield playing host to a block party Sept. 8.
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